Ready, set, charges! Five scenarios where you'll spend a lot more for your next flight than you might have imagined

George Hobica, June 04, 2008
Fares from Washington DC:

    Your round-trip airfare is only the beginning by David Landsel

    Your round-trip airfare is only the beginning

    by David Landsel

    When American Airlines announced a fee of $15 for the first checked bag, the staff here at gasped collectively, as did most of you. European travelers, however, if they paid attention to the news at all, shrugged. After all, they are used to such things on their discount carriers, such as Ryanair, which charge for everything except to use the emergency oxygen masks, to make up for the fact that the fare was next to nothing, or, in some cases, literally nothing. 

    The greatest surprise in this current climate of high fuel prices and tough economic scenarios is perhaps not how fee-happy domestic airlines have become – it's that it took them so long to get there.

    Then again, air travel in the vast United States has always been a little different – while other countries have socialized their health care systems, Americans have come to expect an almost socialization of airfares, and we're addicted to paying less, adjusted for inflation, year after year. Generally, the airlines are only too happy to indulge us – as long as they can, and as long as they know that the government will be there to bail them out when times get rough, as it did after 9/11.

    But what now? Nobody's indulging anyone. Things have gotten fierce. So fierce, that a simple flight from A to B is starting to seem a bit like a cruise. Sure, you paid a base price, but whoa, those extra charges on board that pop up out of nowhere! That's considered normal at sea – maybe it's time you considered it normal in the air.

    Relax, though – the upsell opportunities for a cruise line are limitless. Not so much in the sky – after all, how much money can they make off of you sandwiched in your tiny seat in a flying tuna fish can? We'll show you how much – check out these five sample scenarios.


    The scenario: Little precious is spending a month with your ex in Dallas this summer, but you're absolutely up against it and there's no way you can get down there to deliver her. You've got to put her on a plane and hope for the best. Thing is, your child has a natural obsession with her miniature poodle, and can't bear to part. So, Fifi's going with. Also, because your unaccompanied minor is spending a month away, she's got a bunch of luggage. Too much, in fact – three checked bags. Luckily, none of them are overweight or oversized (that’s where the airlines really get you these days). You paid $399 for the round-trip fare. How much more are we looking at here?

    That'll cost you: Lots. $100 for the unaccompanied minor each way, $100 for a pet onboard each way, $15 for bag one, $25 for bag two, $100 for bag three. Your total comes to $680 roundtrip.


    The scenario: You're 6 feet and 4 inches tall and you're heading from New York to San Francisco for the semester. You'll be checking two bags, and you need some leg room, since it’s impossible for you to fold yourself into a typical economy seat. Therefore, you will try for an exit row seat. Also, as a growing, very tall young individual, you will require sustenance beyond the usual salty snacks, so you'll buy a salad and a sandwich on board. How much are we looking at here?

    That'll cost you: Two bags checked are just $25 – only American (so far) has gone the route of charging $15 for the first checked bag. It's about $60 for the upgrade to the exit row, part of United's Economy Plus scheme, which sells off roomier coach-class seats.  Each menu item, as of June 1, costs $7 on United, so a salad and sandwich will run you $14, bringing your total to $99 one way.


    The scenario: Think it's just the legacy carriers reaching into your pockets? Think again. Say you booked a flight to Los Angeles, but have to change it. Also, ever since you figured out you could get an exit row seat by accessing your flight's seat map online, you have been hooked, and the fact that the airline started charging for this and other roomier coach cabin seats hasn't stopped you – you want your 38" of pitch, and you'll pay anything for it. While on board, you will watch two movies, because you absolutely hate flying and Los Angeles is just too far to depend on Comedy Central to help the time pass.

    That'll cost you: The change is going to be the biggest hit to your wallet -- $100. (Hope it was worth it!) Exit row seats coast to coast are now $20 each way, for a total of $40. Movies at $5 mean an extra $10, so you've just parted with $150. You didn't need it, right?


    The scenario: It's a sexy airline (really, it is). On a trip from San Francisco to New York, you are going to let your hair down. So you order a few drinks (say, 3), watch a couple of movies (say, 2), you order some food (say, a sandwich) and because you could, you confirmed yourself in a bulkhead seat. This should be pretty cheap, no?

    That'll cost you: Think again. Virgin America may have great entertainment systems at every seat – the best flying the domestic skies, currently – but nothing comes cheap. Drinks run $5-6, while movies are $7, which is a little steep – luckily, there's plenty to choose from. Figure an average of about $10 per item for food. Oh, and that bulkhead seat you wanted? $25 in each direction. Say hello to nearly $90 bucks. At least it went to a good cause (eating and drinking). Beats paying to bring your luggage along.

    The scenario: You'd figure that as a treasured frequent flyer, all this extra charge business would be beneath you! Ha! Obviously, you're not that frequent a flyer. Welcome to the new world of customer loyalty programs. Thanks for your business! Now go away! (Or, better yet, stay so we can torture you.)
    The problem is, you booked a flight with frequent-flier miles, but you have to cancel it. Oh, and also? You booked your flight over the phone, because it was much easier.
    That'll cost you: Well, you already paid $25 for the agent's time -- so, right away, your free flight wasn't free – now you're going to pay $100 for them to redeposit the miles. You know, because they are so heavy and cumbersome and hard to redeposit. Therefore, your free flight has now cost you $125, and you're not even flying. Well, at least you weren’t charged for baggage, food, curbside check in, or any of the other things that used to be free.